Feb. 28, 2004. 10:36 AM
TONY BOCK/TORONTO STAR
LEARNING BY HAND: A new student at the Salaheddin Islamic Centre's school studies the basics of Arabic script. The Scarborough centre houses a mosque serving as many as 2,500 faithful and an elementary school for 215 children. Its leaders say they have been targeted by security services.
Salaheddin director and religious leader Aly Hindy addresses the Friday gathering after prayers. He also helped design the building.
Traditional and western elements jostle in the hallway of the Salaheddin centre's private elementary school, where 215 students follow the province's curriculum with additional lessons in Arabic.
Friday afternoon prayers inside the mosque at the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, where as many as 2,500 Muslims come to worship. The centre adheres to a more strict version of the faith than most other Toronto mosques, and some speculate that this is what has attracted the attention of Canadian and foreign security services.
Centre of attention
Scarborough home to mosque, elementary school, library
And a target for security services

MICHELLE SHEPHARD
STAFF REPORTER

Muayyed Nureddin lay on his stomach in a brightly lit room, as his interrogators beat his wet feet with cables. The Syrian authorities asked the questions they had asked for days.

The last one was always the same.

What is your relationship with Canada's Salaheddin Islamic Centre?

Nureddin was released after a month behind bars. This week, back in Toronto, he spoke publicly for the first time about the interrogations and one session of torture he says he endured in a country where he had never been before.

The day before Nureddin spoke to reporters, news broke that another Canadian citizen was being released, this time from an Egyptian prison where he was held and questioned for 20 days.

Intelligence agents there also wanted to know about Salaheddin.

And in Toronto, segregated from other prisoners, one of Salaheddin's former administrators has been held in jail for more than two years, deemed a risk to national security by the Canadian government.

Just yesterday a judge denied bail, as he appeals an order for deportation to Egypt.

The eight-year-old Salaheddin Islamic Centre is a place of worship for as many as 2,500 Toronto Muslims and a private elementary school for 215 students. It now has become a magnet for security services both here and abroad.

Even attending Salaheddin to pray runs the risk of a visit from agents with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), according to its administrators.

"I don't know what they think goes on here," says Salaheddin's outspoken director and imam Aly Hindy. "They keep imagining something. If you tell them `good morning' they think there's something behind it."

Hindy says agents recently set up shop in a nearby doughnut shop to interview those who attend Salaheddin.

"One guy told me he had an appointment at Tim Hortons, he was going to meet an agent at six o'clock. Another one has one at seven, another an hour later," Hindy says.

"Once you start to speak they start showing you pictures, do you know this guy, do you know this guy and by just saying yes I know him, you become linked, it's terrible."

Ahmed Said Khadr may have been the first Canadian to attract CSIS agents to Salaheddin. American authorities claim Khadr used his charity work in Afghanistan and Pakistan to raise funds to finance Al Qaeda and when he lived in Scarborough his family attended the Salaheddin to pray and socialize.

Khadr died on Oct. 2 in a battle with Pakistani soldiers and two of his sons were captured and held in the American camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One son was released last year.

Then there are two men who the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) believes joined Ansar al-Islam, the group Washington said provided a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime. They led prayers at the Salaheddin mosque during Ramadan.

Hindy says any connections of the allegations facing these men and Salaheddin are unfair. This "CSIS bias" he claims resulted in the detentions and questioning of two of Salaheddin's administrators this year in Syria and Egypt. Why else, he asks, would those countries have any interest or information concerning a Canadian Islamic centre?

That accusation is dismissed by Martin Rudner, director of Ottawa's Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies.

"This notion of doing favours is nonsense, they don't have time to do favours," Rudner said. "So if Mr. X is being held in Syria or Egypt based on information that has come through channels from Canada, they're not doing it for us, they have their own direct suspicions."

And former CSIS agent Michel Juneau-Katsuya says it's no secret that agents will monitor certain mosques, paying close attention to what is being preached, sometimes passing that information to foreign governments.

"Islam is an integral part of (a Muslim's) life. In the western world we created a difference between politics and religion and Islam hasn't," said Juneau-Katsuya who recently retired from CSIS after 21 years as an agent. "(CSIS will) keep an eye on it because we know through historical observations and analysis and case studies etc., etc. that radical or more fundamental interpretation of Islam is often associated to more radical practices."

When asked about CSIS' handling of mosques, spokesperson Nicole Currier said the agency does not profile individuals or groups. They gather information, she says, and "then go wherever that takes us."

Allowing a reporter and photographer to walk through the halls of Salaheddin this week, was not welcomed by some who pray or teach there. Not because there's anything to hide, Hindy explains, but because with so many misconceptions about Islam many worry that any mention of Salaheddin in the media is damaging.

Muslims also covet their modesty and privacy, he says.

But with the detentions abroad and the desire to show that there is no nefarious activity inside the walls of the modest two-storey building nestled behind Scarborough's strip malls, Hindy says they have no choice.

"Either we keep quiet about people disappearing or we speak up, if you speak up there's bad publicity and people get scared but also, I can't leave people in jail for no reason."

The doors of the Salaheddin Islamic Centre open at dawn and remain unlocked until the sun goes down.

Walk through the doors for women under the sign "sister's entrance," and you pass the closed bookshop.

That's where 63-year-old Helmy Elsherief worked before his 20-day detention in Egypt last month. He is now staying with relatives in Cairo, hoping to get his passport back today so he can return home. Elsherief had planned to visit with relatives on his way home from the pilgrimage to Mecca when he was taken without explanation at the Cairo airport.

Down the hall, most days you'll find Hindy sitting behind his large desk, often talking to more than one person with his cell phone also demanding his attention. On Friday afternoons the office door is closed while Hindy leads the prayers in the mosque, reached through the doors of the "brother's entrance."

Past Hindy's office are the stark halls he proudly describes designing himself, drawing on his engineering background. The centre was built using money collected locally, making it, he says, one of the few mosques in the city that doesn't draw funding from backers in Saudi Arabia.

A staircase leads up to the elementary school. Outside the second-floor principal's office, sits a 7-year-old student, getting help with his Arabic lesson from a volunteer.

"You're writing a story?" he asks.

"Write this one. There's this mysterious mouse," he says, getting up to wiggle his legs. "It squirmed around like this all over the place."

Laila Abdel Aziz laughs then gently rests her hand on his shoulder, coaxing him back into his chair.

"He just transferred here, he's new," she says. "He came from the public school and you should hear the words he brought with him."

Aziz has been the school's principal since last September.

Reading the newspaper accounts of the detentions of Nureddin and Elsherief both former principals of the school has been difficult. Then came news yesterday that 41-year-old Mahmoud Jaballah will remain behind bars. Jaballah is the Egyptian refugee held in Toronto and ordered deported and who was also a principal at Salaheddin before leaving the school to start his own Islamic school.

"The name is in the news repeatedly, and espec ially saying first principal, second principal, third principal (detained)," she says shaking her head. "I'm planning to go back home this year but now, to be honest, you worry is it going to happen to me?"

Abdul Aziz is her middle name. She's doesn't want her last name published.

"We are not dealing with politics at all here. We are not teaching the children to hate anyone in fact it's the opposite," she says. "I always tell the kids if you are walking on the street and find a banana peel, remove it, because you are helping everyone and God rewards you for that."

The lessons are taught in English and follows the province's curriculum. Only music is omitted from its program to make time for an Arabic language class, she says, so the students can later learn to recite the Qur'an

There's just one hallway on the second floor, showered in sunshine from skylights, the walls covered by students' hanging coats, bags and construction paper art.

It's a mix of traditional and Western influences. A pink Barbie knapsack hangs on a hook belonging to a girl wearing a hijab. A small boy in kindergarten nestled under a Scooby Doo flannel blanket during naptime. The older male and female children are kept separated for gym class.

"We follow the code of behaviour from the Ministry of Education but we're more strict in fact," says Aziz. "We don't allow children to hit each other, to use bad language, to make fun of each other, all of this is not allowed here."

Those lessons include dealing with racism, not just from outside but within the school, with its diverse population of many new immigrants from Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Guyana.

Parents pay $225 a month to send their children to the school, with discounts given for siblings.

"All of us came to Canada because we felt it was a better place to live, a democratic place," she said.

"You can speak freely, you can say your opinion, these things are not unfortunately allowed back home, it's different. It's really sad to see what's happening now."

While the school's principals are the ones who have been detained, it's unlikely that the lessons of the 20 teachers there are of interest to CSIS.

It's the message delivered downstairs to the men at the mosque during the Friday sermons and the informal conversations that agents monitor.

Yesterday more than 1,000 men stood shoulder to shoulder in the neat rows required before the reciting of Qur'an is delivered. Hindy spoke, as did the son of the recently released Elsherief.

Many who listen are regulars, who live or work in the area and find the Salaheddin the most convenient location for their required prayers. Others come because they prefer the imam or his message.

"We don't stand at the door and check people's I.D.," Hindy says. "It's like (a) church, people come in to pray, everyone is welcome."

A decade ago, a number of Toronto's imams began a movement for moderation, away from a harder-line interpretation of Islam that was gaining popularity elsewhere in the world.

Instead of bringing the community together, however, it emphasized the differences in practice. It was for the best, television host Tarek Fatah and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress believes.

"There has never been a single Muslim entity just as there has never been a single Christian entity," Fatah says. "It's (any Islamic centre's) right to have a belief system, that's what western secular democracy is about."

Salaheddin's doctrine is considered stricter than others in the city, says Fatah, requiring women to wear the hijab and banning musical instruments.

"I may have a profound difference in ideology with Salaheddin but would never accuse them to be a danger to Canada or threat to national security," he says. "I think this is gross incompetence on the part of CSIS."

If the messages in the mosque are the source of the Salaheddin centre's unwanted attention, the imam has no plans to change them.

On Sept. 11, 2001 Hindy say s he was horrified and immediately condemned the attacks.

"But I can't hear about Bush being considered as a man of peace."

In his sermons, a mix of religion, politics and culture, Hindy speaks out against America.

"We should be able to express out opinions. Honestly we don't like George Bush, most Muslims don't," he says.

"A call for action doesn't mean to do something illegal."

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